Strategy and Tactics

By General G. H. DUFOUR, lately an Officer of the French Engineer Corps, Graduate of the Polytechnic School, and Commander of the Legion of Honor ; Chief of Staff of the Swiss Army. Translated from the latest French Edition, by WILLIAM R. CRAIGIIILL, Captain U. S. Engineers, lately Assistant Professor of Civil and Military Engineering and Science of War at the U. S. Military Academy. New York : D. Van Nostrand.
THE author of this work is a distinguished civil and military engineer and practical soldier, who, in all military matters, is recognized as one of the first authorities in Europe. His history is especially interesting to Americans, since not many years ago he played a prominent part in the suppression of a rebellion which, in many features, exhibited a remarkable similarity to the one with which our own Government is contending. We refer to the secession of the seven Swiss cantons forming the Sonderbund, which, like the insurrection of the Southern States, was a revolt of reactionary against liberal principles of government; it was likewise the fruit of a well-organized and long-matured conspiracy, which only delayed an open outbreak until all its preparations were adequately perfected for a formidable resistance. The issue of the contest was what we may hope will be that of our own, — the triumph of free principles, and the complete reëstablishment of the authority of the legitimate Government on a firmer basis than it had before occupied.
General Dufour was born at Constance, of a family of Genevese origin. Having acquired his early education at Geneva, where he devoted his attention chiefly to mathematics, he entered the Polytechnic School at Paris, was commissioned two years afterwards in the corps of Engineers, and served in the later campaigns of Napoleon, where he rose to the rank of captain. He afterwards entered the Swiss Federal service, in which he became colonel, chief of the general staff, and quartermaster-general. At later periods he has held the less active, but equally responsible and honorable positions of superintendent of the triangulation of Switzerland on which the topographical map of the country is based, and chief instructor of engineering in the principal military school of the Republic, at Thun.
When, in 1847, the Swiss Diet determined to dissolve the Sonderbund, which had at length committed the overt act of treason, General Dufour was appointed commander-in-chief of the Federal army. A few days after the call for troops was issued, he found himself at the head of an army of one hundred thousand men, and immediately entered actively upon the work before him. His dispositions were skilful and his movements rapid. He adopted with success the “ anaconda ” system of strategy, and hemmed in the insurgents at every point, closing in the mountain-passes, and completely isolating them. After six days of active campaigning the Canton of Freyburg was subdued ; nine days afterwards Luzerne submitted ; the other rebellious cantons were quick to yield ; and in eighteen days from the commencement of active operations, and twenty-three days from the issue by the Federal Diet of the decree of coercion, the rebellion was extinguished so completely that no murmur of treason has since been heard in the Republic. So rapidly was the whole accomplished, that foreign powers had not time to intervene; and it is said, that, when the French messenger went to seek the insurgents with his proposals, they were already fugitives. In honor of his services in this contest, the Federal Diet voted General Dufour a sabre of honor and a donative of forty thousand francs.
General Dufour’s “ Strategy and Tactics ” is evidently the fruit of an attentive study of the best examples and authorities of all ages. He has avoided mere theories and fine writing, and has aimed to present a work practical in its treatment and application. The lessons of history have been his guide ; his precepts are fortified by pertinent examples from the campaigns of the best generals, and we may study them with confidence that when put to the actual test they will not fail.
The distinction between strategy and tactics, not always clearly understood, is in substance drawn thus by General Dufour. Strategy involves general movements and the general arrangement of campaigns, depending chiefly upon the topographical features of the country which is the scene of operations, — while tactics relate to the minor details of campaigns, as the disposition for marches and battles, the arrangement of camps, etc. Strategy depends upon circumstances fixed in their nature, and is the same always and everywhere ; but tactics must be modified to suit degree of skill, arms, and manner of fighting of the combatants. Hence, “ much instruction in strategy may be derived from the study of history ; but very grave errors will result, if we attempt to apply in the armies of the present day the tactics of the ancients. This fault has been committed by more than one man of merit, for want of reflection upon the great difference between our missile weapons and those of the ancients, and upon the resulting differences in the arrangement of troops for combat.” Our own military leaders have not entirely avoided mistakes of this kind in the conduct of the present war.
The treatise before us elucidates the general principles of strategy and tactics, and applies them to the different classes of field - operations, without entering into details, or describing the minor manæuvres, which belong more appropriately to another class of works.
The first chapter treats of bases and lines of operations, strategic points, plans of offensive and defensive campaigns, and strategical operations. Under the last head are embraced forward movements and retreats, diversions, (combined movements and detachments,) the pursuit of a defeated enemy, and the holding of a conquered country. The great lesson of the chapter, prominent in almost every paragraph, is the necessity of concentration. Divergent marches, scattering of forces, unless ample facilities are secured for a speedy rally, when necessary, to a common point, are among the most fruitful sources of disaster.
The organization of armies next receives attention. The explanation of the composition of the army, its divisions and subdivisions, and the adjustment of the relative proportions of the different classes of troops, is brief and lucid. In the article on the formation of troops the relative merits of formation in two ranks or three are discussed at length.
Under the head of marches and manæuvres are considered the rules by which these movements should be conducted. These apply to the adjustment of the columns, and the division, when necessary, of the forces upon different roads in order to facilitate progress and make subsistence more easy, the detailing of scouts and advance and rear guards, etc. The adaptation of these rules to forward movements and battles leads to a description of the order of march of the division, the precautions to be observed in the passage of defiles, bridges, woods, and rivers, and when the column has arrived in the presence of the enemy, and the conduct of flank marches, marches in retreat, and the simultaneous movement of several columns. The importance of precautions against surprise, of preserving the mobility of the columns, and of providing for concentration on short notice whenever it may be necessary, is not lost sight of, but is dwelt upon with great frequency. But military rules are not more inflexible than other human rules. Though they are based upon fixed principles, cases may, and do, arise when they cannot be strictly adhered to, — sometimes when they ought not to be. When should they be strictly observed ? When and how far is it prudent to depart from them ? “ These questions,'’ says General Dufour, “admit of no answers. Circumstances, which are always different, must decide in each particular case that arises. Here is the place for a general to show his ability. The military art would not be so difficult in practice, and those who have become so distinguished in it would not have acquired their renown, had it been a thing of invariable rules. To be really a great general, a man must have great tact and discernment in order to adopt the best plan in each case as it presents itself; he must have a ready coup dæil, so as to do the right thing at the right time and place; for what is excellent one day may be very injurious the next. The plans of a great captain seem like inspirations, so rapid are the operations of the mind from which they proceed: notwithstanding this, everything is taken into account and weighed; each circumstance is appreciated and properly estimated; objects which escape entirely the observation of ordinary minds may to him seem so important as to become the principal means of inducing him to pursue a particular course. As a necessary consequence, a deliberative council is a poor director of the operations of a campaign. As another consequence, no mere theorizer can be a great general.”
Battles, on which the fortune of the campaign must turn at last, receive a large share of attention. The decision of the question as to when they shall be fought, though sometimes admitting of no choice, is more often, with a skilful general, a matter of pure calculation, depending upon fixed principles, which General Dufour recites in a few brief, but suggestive sentences. His directions for the disposition and manæuvres of the forces in both offensive and defensive battles are quite complete, though the thousand varying circumstances by which these may be modified, and which render it impossible for one battle to be a copy of another, can only be hinted at. Among the elements of a battle here considered are the disposition of the forces, the manner of bringing on and conducting the engagement, the manæuvres to change position on the field, bringing on reinforcements, seizing all advantages that may offer, and the manner of conducting pursuit or retreat. The attack and defence of mountains and rivers, of redoubts, houses, and villages, covering a siege, infantry, cavalry, and artillery combats and reconnoissances, each involve special principles, and are treated separately. In the course of the article on battles, some general observations are introduced on conducting manæuvres so as to insure promptness, security, and precision. The conduct of topographical reconnoissances is well explained by means of a map of a supposed district of country, with marked features, which is to be examined. On this the course of the reconnoitring party, as it goes over the whole, is traced step by step, and fully explained in the letter-press. In the concluding chapter the author treats of convoys, ambuscades, advance posts, the laying-out of camps, and giving rest to troops.
Such are the outlines of a subject which General Dufour has handled in a masterly manner. His maxims are practical in their bearing, they commend themselves to our common sense as sound in principle, and are such as have received the indorsement of the best authorities. His style is clear and comprehensive; nothing superfluous is inserted, nothing need be added to make the subject more clear. The illustrations, which are given wherever they are needed, are simple and clear ; the explanations are sufficient. This work will be a valuable manual to soldiers, and students will find it an excellent text-book. We hail it as an important addition to our growing military literature.